Academic freedom, Islamophobia and antisemitism

I have followed the work of the sociologist David Miller for around a decade. During that time, it has been surreal and bewildering to watch him go from a position of complete obscurity to, in the last few weeks, possibly the most widely known and -criticised academic in the UK. This is all due to allegations of amtisemitism, which have been made about him for some years by various parties. After an ugly dispute with the Jewish society of the University of Bristol, where he teaches, however, these allegations have escalated into a deluge of calls for him to be removed from his post.

It is hard to overstate how deep the split is among academics on this issue. As I write, two open letters to the University’s leadership are circulating online, one describing Miller as an eminent scholar and champion of anti-racism, the other labelling him a peddler of slander and libel against Jews. Both these letters include hundreds of signatories, some of whom are recognised globally across a range of disciplines. Disconcertingly for me, both lists also contain the names of numerous individuals whose research I admire, as well as peers, colleagues, personal supervisors and friends.

I do not feel able to sign either of these letters. I recommend some of Miller’s writings on Islamophobia – a subject that both he and I research and teach – to my students. This, as well as wider concerns about freedom of inquiry, makes it hard for me to join the campaign against him. At the same time, I worry about the wording and arguments currently being used in his defence. What concerns me most is that Miller’s defenders seem unable or unwilling to acknowledge the nature and breadth of the criticisms made of him, which is driving a damaging wedge between different activist networks, scholarly fields, and religious groups.

Miller’s research and scholarship

What separates the dispute over Miller from the run-of the-mill cancel culture argument is that, rather than being based on a single badly judged tweet, it is closely connected to a longstanding research programme. This makes it worth saying a few words about Miller’s academic work, and firstly its strengths. Miller and his colleagues’ analysis of Islamophobia is distinct from most scholarship on the subject in that it doesn’t ask, ‘What does Islamophobia look like?’ but rather, ‘Who benefits from it?’ It explores how Islamophobic narratives are generated in the service of material interests, which range from party advantage to states’ geopolitical strategies.

His report ‘The Cold War on British Muslims’ is a good example of this. This examines how complex networks tying together senior UK politicians, media commentators and think tanks have effectively made it impossible to talk meaningfully about Muslim communities in the UK media. Muslim community advocates are routinely treated appallingly on UK TV and radio, the most recent case being an interview by Emma Barnett with the newly appointed MCB leader Zara Mohammed during which the latter was asked a range of misleading and spurious questions. Part of the reason this happens is such networks have cemented a badly distorted image of British Islam, one that helps to insulate our political leaders from penetrating criticism of their foreign, integration and counter-terrorism policies, as well as the Conservative Party’s deep Islamophobia problem

There are not many public voices who approach Islamophobia in this way, stepping beyond descriptions of tropes to look at why Islamophobia has surged in the last two decades. Without his and his colleagues’ writing, my ability to explain the reality of modern Islamophobia is badly diminished. This is one reason why support for Miller is not simply defensiveness linked to academics’ growing anxiety about political constraints being placed on scholarship, and why, to my mind, he has an academic freedom defence against calls for his sacking. That defence should not, of course, always trump concerns about how teachers relate to their students, and some of the allegations on that theme are serious. But I am not persuaded that those matters can be fully understood by outsiders whose understanding of the situation is partial.

Scholarship and public activism

The criticisms of Miller are not, however, baseless. He has, as Keith Kahn-Harris observed recently in a perceptive blog, a tendency to ‘flatten’ his subjects into one-dimensional, single issue parties. His transformation of complex traditions into movements with concrete objectives erases subtleties and, sometimes, internal tensions. He also views Western states almost solely as disciplinary and propagandising apparatuses, erasing any differences in practices, habits and perspectives across governance domains.

Mostly, these are these are the kind of technical criticisms that are best suited to academic journals. I feel he and his colleagues are unfair in the way they align some secularist activist groups like Women Against Fundamentalism with a wider constellation of anti-Muslim organisations, even going so far as to draw parallels between that group’s language and that of the English Defence League in one publication. More generally, although Miller’s work has a longstanding interest in the way claims about ‘Islamism’ are used strategically to disbar British Muslims from public life, you find almost nothing in his work about the multifaceted history of Islamist activism in the UK, which leaves his analysis feeling thin and at times badly equipped to make evaluative judgements.

When it comes to his writing on Jewish organisations, though, these criticisms take on more weight. ‘Zionism’ (or to be exact, ‘parts of the Zionist movement’) stands in Millers typology as one of five ’pillars’ of Islamophobia. Certainly, there is a sorry history of Islamophobic claims and stereotypes being used to delegitimise Muslim charities working in the West Bank and Gaza, with some such organisations even having their bank accounts frozen with little notice or right of appeal. But Miller’s reading of the ‘Zionist movement’ is, to put it charitably, conceptually wobbly. Even in his more detailed academic writing, where he does make efforts to avoid tarring all pro-Israel organisations as Islamophobic, I am never sure what ‘Zionism’ refers to. Sometimes it is limited to Jewish organisations and separated off from US neoconservatism, at others it is interpreted more broadly to include almost any pro-Israel organisation.

Outside of his academic scholarship, this conceptual wobbliness coalesces and solidifies into something troubling. Here, there is no accounting for the varied interpretations of and contestations over the category of Zionism in Jewish communities, in Britain or elsewhere. Any Jewish group that doesn’t reject the word entirely gets placed within a dense but one-dimensional network of adversaries. This is then supplemented by an image of shady, propagandising state forces. The end result looks like conspiracy, and Miller’s views seem to have become more conspiratorial over time, moving away from his professed sociological materialism.

One example of this can illustrate. In a defiant article about the campaign against him for The Electronic Intifada, Miller refers to the example I gave above of Emma Barnett’s interview with Zara Mohammed. In this example, Miller’s materialist theorisation of the production of Islamophobia as public common sense dissapears and is replaced by the baffling explanation that Barnett is hostile to Muslims because she is an ‘energetic Zionist campaigner’. Religious illiteracy, the culture of British journalism, cemented public attitudes to Muslims in Britain – all these factors are trumped by Barnett’s ‘Zionism’. And in all honesty, I am struggling to see what that term means in this context, beyond simply, ‘Jewish journalist’.

All of which brings us back to the campaign in support of him. I am convinced that it must be possible to defend academic freedom without exonerating those we seek to defend, just as it is possible to criticise without calling for someone to lose their job (something, I should note, the open letter criticising Miller stops short of). The difficulty I have with the letter in support of him is that it doesn’t just do this but draws the signatories into Miller’s worldview, speaking of ’well-resourced, co-ordinated networks […] manipulating and stage-managing public debates’. Anyone who objects to Miller’s writing has thus either been played or is part of the conspiracy.

No wonder, then, that the reaction from Jewish colleagues has been to express a sense of deep alienation. And let’s be clear on this: this includes the full religio-political spectrum, from conservative to liberal Zionist, to those who see Israel as approaching an apartheid state. It also includes practically all the people who have informed my thinking about antisemitism and British Jewish communal life – which is to say, the very people who give us the tools with which we can start to speak in a sophisticated, three dimensional way about contested, meaning-laden concepts like Zionism.

I’m not sure where this episode goes from here. I hope for a resolution, but I struggle to see how one can be reached. I wonder if I should have written some of this before now, when this would have been a matter of academic critique rather than of someone’s employability. The only thing I want to offer as a possible way forward is a plea for academic consistency. Those of us who write about Islamophobia are well attuned to the ways concepts like ‘Islamism’, or ‘the Sharia’ are – sometimes intentionally, sometimes out of ignorance –manipulated and inflated in order to imply that all Muslims are antidemocratic. The absolute least we can do is apply this level of sophistication to other religious traditions and our understanding of how other forms of prejudice operate. If we do not, then I worry we will always end up with one form of prejudice being played off invidiously against the other and with political battles fought on the terrain of religious identity.

NB: Since I drafted this blog a third open letter – the second in defence of Miller – has been posted. This does at least suggest some progress is possible, in that this letter does not assume agreement with Miller among the signatories. A meeting ‘Defend Academic Freedom, Defend David Miller’ has also been released publicly. While I strongly disagree with many of the contributions to this, I would recommend the statements by Tariq Modood and Justin Schlosberg, which indicate that there are some areas of common ground might be found between Miller’s critics and his supporters.